Everything in its place, and a place for everything.
I played Unpacking last week. It was a spur of the moment thing, apropos of nothing. As a bit of an experiment, I decided to try playing a game on my laptop - and it seemed like a good fit for it. Halfway through it, a good friend of mine described it on Twitter as a "beautiful, touching poem" - and he's absolutely right. Every so often you come across a game that transcends the genre. It'll offer up something incredibly simple in exchange for a complex and nuanced reward. Other games that spring to mind that hit this incredibly precise target would be What Remains of Edith Finch, and maybe Firewatch. And now, I'm adding Unpacking to that small and elite list. It's a passion project that makes you feel.
The gameplay is incredibly simple. You're confronted with a room, and a pile of boxes. Each box contains a load of items that need to be placed in the right room, and in the right place. The items are all immediately recognisable - those of us of a certain age probably owned the vast majority of each of these things, and you'll know where each thing needs to go without having to give it too much thought. As you progress through the game - and through the life of our unseen protagonist, the rooms get bigger and become more numerous... as do the boxes containing her amassed belongings. So far, so simple - and honestly, not all that interesting. Unpacking is doing something else, something more - just below the surface of what you're engaging with. All you, as a player, need to do is pay just a little bit of attention.
As you go through the process of emptying each box, placing each possession in the spot that makes most sense for it, your mind starts to wander. Who is this person, whose belongings you're unloading? What has caused her change in living circumstances? Has this move been caused by happy events, or has she hit a bump in the road?
You'll start to realise that, like most of us, it's the knick-knacks that she keeps around her that really give the most insight into who she is; the D20 die, the little red bus and the statue shaped like the Eiffel Tower. Like the rest of us, her interests and habits are shaped by those she comes into contact with too. At one point in the game, we're tasked with unpacking her belongings into an apartment that already houses a man - and it's clear as you cram her stuff into the tiny, cramped kitchen that this chap really appreciates a good cup of coffee. Later on, as you move her from one place to the next, you see that some of that coffee brewing equipment has made its way into her pile of belongings. The relationship ended, but that little bit of influence lingers, absorbed into her own personality. None of this is ever stated explicitly - instead the clues are left for you, the player, to notice or ignore. For you to unpack, as it were.
The concept of environmental storytelling is one that's been used in games for a while now - usually to varying levels of success. This game feels like that concept pushed to its natural denouement; there is no storytelling in Unpacking other than the items in the environment and the limited way in which you interact with them. Yet the game manages to weave an intimate tale of growing up, coming of age, romantic trials and tribulations and - hopefully - embrace and acceptance of who our unseen protagonist is.
A special shout out has to be thrown in the direction of whoever did the pixel art in this game as well. That person (or small team!) is wonderfully talented. Every object in the game - and there are dozens of them - is immediately recognisable, however small it may be. That's an absolutely staggering achievement, given the limitations they've imposed on themselves.
I've long said that if you want spectacle, the AAA space is full of it - but that if you want a game that'll make you feel something, you need to search out an indie. Unpacking can take its place in that latter group. It's as much work of art as it is video game, something that's so much greater than the sum of its parts. It's a story of life - of opportunity and of heartache, and the marching ever onward that most people experience. I'm telling everyone who will listen to me that they should play it - in these dark days of winter and ongoing COVID, it's a little ray of light. And it might be my game of 2021.
Unpacking is available now on Xbox Game Pass. If you have a soul, you need to play it. And when you have, hit me up on Twitter to let me know how it made you feel.